Escalations Are an Essential Part of Project Management

12 September

I have often said that project management is a confrontational discipline because as a project manager you are holding folks at all levels accountable to meet the commitments they made by the date they provided. Many times I have been asked at what point you escalate an issue.

I escalate an issue as soon as critical problems are not receiving adequate attention. Critical problems from a definition perspective are those activities or issues that if not completed or resolved quickly will delay a major project milestone, cause budget overruns, lose a customer or jeopardize the estimated due date for project delivery. Therefore when someone chooses not to accommodate the needs of the project by meeting their commitments an escalation should occur.

If we know there will be major harm to the health of the project why is it that project manager’s resist grappling these issues to closure? When I ask project managers responsible for these troubled projects that question I usually hear the following:

  • We don’t want someone to look bad
  • We don’t want to be a ‘tattletale’
  • We are afraid to burn bridges with our colleagues
  • We are afraid of conflict
  • Our organization doesn’t accept that behavior and we don’t want the political repercussions
  • We keep sending e-mails hoping to resolve the problem

Well first of all as a project manager it’s your job to remove constraints and resolve problems that will surface on every project and potentially harm each project.

If you are feeling like the bad guy when trying to prevent your project from harm then maybe it’s your approach and how you go about escalating that needs to be refined.

Your first step to resolve any problem is to understand the constraint that is preventing the person from delivering. You need to document the constraint(s) and work with that person and his/her manager to remove the constraint. If that doesn’t work you need to escalate the issue to closure.

Each organization should have a documented process in place regarding escalation protocol but you will probably find few if any do. In this case you need to work with the appropriate management team to develop one. An escalation is the process of calling upon higher levels of project leadership or management to resolve an issue. When two parties are unable to agree on the resolution of an issue after a good faith effort to negotiate then an escalation is pursued to resolve the issue.

It’s been my experience that in most cases neither party is wrong. Both are correct from their own perspectives. The following are typical project situations requiring escalation:

  • Resource conflicts: During a project, people are pulled off project work to assist with problems in operations, threatening the project’s ability to meet its schedule. The project manager needs to escalate the issue to the project stakeholder(s) to make sure the project impact is recognized and understood; to lobby for not losing the resource or gaining a replacement; and to help get to a workable solution to protect the goals of the project. A workable solution can be acceptance of project slippage. If the solution is acceptance of project slippage you must communicate the project impact to all stakeholders.
  • Scope disagreement and feature creep: At the beginning of a project, the team cannot reach a workable tradeoff of scope, time, money, people, and quality; or during a project, someone requests that the agreed-upon project scope be changed to add a new feature or deliverable and the team can’t agree on a solution that will not have an impact on the project schedule and/or cost. The team needs the project stakeholder(s) or upper management to make the decision or help resolve the issue.
  • Deliverables issues: Late in a project, there are issues with the project’s main deliverable (product, system, software, document, whatever it may be), and the team believes the issue can’t be corrected within the original time, scope, and cost goals of the project. A tough decision must be made as to whether to release with the current problem or shortfall, or delay project completion to resolve it. The team will often need to escalate this issue to management.
  • Issues among groups: When functional groups owe each other deliverables during a project and one group is running late with what another group needs to stay on schedule, the issue may need to be escalated. Another example would be if the contents of one group’s work conflict with what the other group is developing and the mismatches have to be resolved. The purpose is to highlight the problem to the respective functional management so priorities can be examined, resource decisions made, technical or content issues worked, and the situation resolved.

Escalate is not a dirty word. Escalations are a healthy and essential part of business, largely because they:

  • Provide a check and balance mechanism to ensure that proper action is taken
  • Resolve problems early to manage management expectations
  • Help reduce frustration among project team members
  • Help prioritize a team members work activities
  • Encourage employee participation and ownership of problems

Implementing change is not easy; there’s no cook book to follow so differing opinions on projects is part of the territory. Organizations need to foster a culture that creates a mentality that tough issues should be raised to the next level of management quickly enough to enable a timely decision; not fester without resolution and delay the project.

Project managers need to establish escalation guidelines with the project sponsor and team members at the outset of a project. They must define whom issues should be raised to and within what timeframe, to ensure and enable quick action.

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